Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dale Girls celebrate Christmas

(left to right: karen, melissa and monica ... with the world's ugliest christmas tree in the background)

What was Christmas like in our noisy, creative, unconventional Connecticut household? I asked my sisters to write down some recollections, and today, I am excited to feature my very first Guest Post from my wonderful sister Monica!

Monica is a pianist, a dancer, a teacher, an author, and an expert on the Dalcroze method, which combines movement and music for children. She is beautiful, talented, and extremely witty.

I was 3 years old when Monica was born, and as babies tend to do, she immediately took over the role of smallest and cutest in the household. Fortunately, that left me free to ride my tricycle whenever and wherever I wanted, hide my food behind the radiator, and color on the wall behind the living room sofa. So it worked out fine.

Here are Monica's memories of Christmas:


Just yesterday, the director of the arts-based based school where I teach music and movement asked me what I thought of CDs that direct children to do specific movements, usually over bad synthesized music. She said she dislikes them, and I agreed. They don’t allow for children’s own creativity, if they’re too fast for the children they can’t adjust, and the music itself isn’t worthwhile. She told me some teachers had come back from a conference with such a CD, and asked me to make the case against them in the faculty meeting that was starting in a few minutes. (The task was made a bit more uncomfortable by the fact that some of the teachers were playing the incriminated CD, enthusiastically performing the movements, as we gathered for the meeting.)

It sent me to the internet in search of some quality alternatives, and I thought of the records we had as kids -- like those by Jim Copp (now on CDs) and my favorite, Come and See the Peppermint Tree (now a real collector’s item). We grew up hearing classical music, of course, and I also remember dancing around to what I think must have been Renaissance dance music, and another of Brazilian songs. No matter that I didn’t understand the words -- Mom also read me poetry in German (Ich und Du), explaining later that she thought the sounds and rhythms of the words would seem interesting.

She had some unorthodox ideas, but she was very careful not to let us hear any really bad music. She didn’t start teaching piano lessons until Melissa was 11, and said that was because she never wanted us to hear poor playing until our musical ears were formed. (It could also have been that she was way too busy with four girls until Melissa was 11.)

Although I loved drawing pictures of ballerinas, we didn’t have Suzy-Q’s ballet classes; we had creative movement with teachers now known for their innovations. Although I longed for the Twinkies and Wonderbread other kids took out of their lunchboxes, and was shunned when I revealed a cream cheese and olive sandwich, I’m glad now that we didn’t grow up on junk food. When I was sick and stayed home from school, she’d sometimes bring me a excitingly fresh pad of paper and new colored pencils, but not a coloring book.

So as Christmas approached, I longed for the latest fads in toys. I took the Sears “Wish Book” catalogue and painstakingly wrote out a chart of everything I wanted, complete with item number, quantity, weight, price, size if applicable, color choice, second color choice, etc. I didn’t expect everything on my long list, but figured I’d supply enough options from which to choose that she’d surely find *something* there that’d thrill me!

(Years later, in a freshman creative writing class in college, I put the wish list chart into a short story. The critique came back that it was simply not believable that an eight-year-old would actually do this.)

Until I knew better, I was crazy with anticipation, wondering which things she’d ordered from the Wish Book! The doll with the yellow braids? The red jumper (second choice navy blue)? The game of the year, with something that buzzed, beeped, or glowed in the dark?

Christmas morning was always wonderful, although my List was always ignored. I dreaded the calls from friends asking, “So what did you get?” They seemed to yawn relating their new clothes, toys and dolls under their tree -- the very kinds of things I’d written on my Wish List. In turn, I’d itemize my haul: “A construction set, a word game, craypas...” I didn’t mention the brownie mix. They wouldn’t understand. (Mom’s rationale was that we’d need something to do on Christmas after all the presents were opened, to help us through that afternoon slump all kids go through as a let-down from the morning’s excitement.)

Over the years, there was a dexterity game that required performing tasks “backwards” looking in a mirror; a wood-burning kit; a “Mille Bornes” game involving road distances in metric units or something; a record teaching French through a bizarre variation on Alice in Wonderland (I vaguely remember a group of menacing bears advancing while chanting, “Comment ca va, comment ca va, comment ca va...”)

No, there weren’t a lot of plastic toys, or Twinkies, or tutus... And there wasn’t a lot of money. But Mom was smarter than any of us could have realized at the time. She encouraged us to DO things and create things all our own, without coloring by numbers. She knew we’d quickly be bored with the latest bright plastic fad, but said we could always earn the money and buy them ourselves. We did one year -- a game called “Green Ghost.” It was the coolest thing ever, for almost a week.

And so the little ones that I teach now dance to my piano improvisations, not raucous CDs; they create their own ways of moving, not copying mine. They think their own thoughts, share their own ideas, and sing with their own voices.

Quite simply, Mom knew best.


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